The Iraq Syndrome

Many on the right think President Obama’s Oval Office address last night should have credited “the Surge,” and they would have preferred thanks to his predecessor for taking and implementing a decision that Senator Obama and others fiercely criticized.  The left would have preferred a more ringing indictment of the Bush Administration, and a “never again” promise.  The war’s strongest supporters will, with notable exceptions, remain convinced that going to war was the right decision, that its positive effects are under-appreciated, and that the unknowable alternative history would likely have been at least as violent, and more difficult to influence.  The war’s strongest critics will remain convinced that going to war was undeniably the wrong decision, that any positive effects could have been achieved or even outbid by other means, and that the unknowable alternative history might have been much less violent and expensive, and have allowed America to retain much greater influence and freedom of action.  No one knows for sure where actual history is leading, but everyone is prepared to blame someone else if things go poorly, and all will feel fully justified in their own eyes.

The President chose to let left and right cancel each other out:

As I have said, there were patriots who supported this war, and patriots who opposed it. And all of us are united in appreciation for our servicemen and women, and our hope for Iraq’s future.

It was his demeanor, called “half-hearted and detached” by one as-ever implacable critic, that expressed and may have resonated with a broader public sense of exhaustion regarding the whole subject.  He seemed to be saying, “We’re working hard to make the whole thing as boring and forgettable as possible.”  He did not promise “never again,” possibly because he is not in a position to keep such a promise, otherwise because for the foreseeable future an Iraq Syndrome ought to handle the matter anyway.  With 50,000 troops still in Iraq and in a re-negotiable position, with 100,000 troops in Afghanistan – and still an angry, self-righteous, globally committed, and incredibly well-armed nation – the U.S. will remain involved in wars and warfare, but we are, for now, exceedingly unlikely to undertake a new major military expedition except as a true last resort, and we are even less likely, next time, to assume an ability to change regimes and contain aftermaths. The experience of the ’00s has erased the imperial hubris inherited from the ’90s on both economic and military fronts.  Call it our intellectual war dividend:  Revolutions, we now recall, are not always, or even usually, velvet ones.  Wars, we now recall, do not always, or even usually, end more quickly and at less cost than predicted.  And, incidentally, incomes, revenues, and stock and property prices, we now recall, do not always, or even usually, rise continuously. In this sense Iraq was just one self-chastening among others.

My personal view remains that we were destined to become deeply, bloodily, and expensively engaged in and around Iraq:  Too much unfinished business, too much political, economic, and moral involvement.  Following 9/11,with both our fear and our blood still high, our confidence boosted by a seemingly easy victory in Afghanistan, we chose to act rather than react, to pre-empt rather than retaliate, to take the dice in our own hands rather than bet on someone else’s throw.  To indulge for a moment in a-what-might-have-been, if we had not acted when we did, then, sooner or later, by whatever concatenation of collapses or aggressions, we would have found ourselves on propinquitous ground, sea, and air taking and giving heavy fire anyway.  The world economic and political system or “order” that we uphold and depend upon is itself too dependent on what flows out of the geographical Gulf for us to abide indefinitely all of those other gulfs:  the gulf in our knowledge, troubling gaps in our sense of control and predictability, the increasingly intolerable moral chasm in our then existent policy.  Nature abhors a gulf of gulfs, and “if we knew then what we know now” is a vain exercise, since we never would have learned what we now know except by having acted, suffered, and desperately fought to rescue ourselves.  Compare what our armed forces, the political class, and the interested public now have learned about Iraq and environs, and all related issues, as compared to what we generally knew in the year 2000.  Operation Iraqi Freedom was as much an exploratory expedition as a “real war” – for the country – if too real for our carefully counted soldiers and much less carefully counted budget.

As for the Iraqis, it is an index of our former naivete, insuperable except by experience, that we hoped to “give” them freedom, and, through their happy example, to spread it to the rest of the Arab and eventually the Islamic world.  We simply allowed ourselves to forget what our own history would have taught us, if only anyone ever learned from history.  Maybe deep down we remembered, but put it out of our minds -choosing to believe (not all of us, but easily enough of us) what we needed to believe.  You can say we chose to trick ourselves into acting, and, even though we saw the bucket of water placed strategically above the partly open door, we decided to blunder forward anyway.  Except the bucket was full of blood, and most of it Iraqi, the critics will say – and they are right.  Yet can anyone with much knowledge of the history of the region pretend that the violence and destruction would likely have been avoided for very long?  That they weren’t bleeding out month by month already – with an ever-present option on the next catastrophe, against a background of misery and despair?  That goes for the violence and destruction of the first liberation, the liberation from Saddam – it had to come someday; it goes for the violence and destruction of the second liberation – from foreign masters and would-be masters, including but not limited to us; it goes for the violence and destruction of the third liberation, from the “thousand Saddams” that now compete in Iraq for position.

By intervening as we did and how we did, we helped set the timetable of revolutionary violence and put ourselves in place to absorb and channel it, but it may be another form of hubris to assume anything more.  Here is the simple summary that the President supplied, using terms that his predecessor might just as well have used, putting a hopeful emphasis on how Americans enabled Iraqis to take their fate into their own hands:

The Americans who have served in Iraq completed every mission they were given. They defeated a regime that had terrorized its people. Together with Iraqis and coalition partners who made huge sacrifices of their own, our troops fought block by block to help Iraq seize the chance for a better future. They shifted tactics to protect the Iraqi people; trained Iraqi Security Forces; and took out terrorist leaders. Because of our troops and civilians – and because of the resilience of the Iraqi people – Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny, even though many challenges remain.

The difficulty for Americans, especially for onetime proponents of the war like myself who hoped for a simpler, smoother, and much less costly transition – though who had been willing to contemplate a much costlier initial battle – was coming to understand why the Iraqis themselves were so resistant to seizing that historical opportunity and acting in their own collective interests.

So here is what I think we have re-learned, and had to re-learn:  Prior to “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” as the name emphasizes, the Iraqis were un-free.  They were unprepared and perhaps unwilling to enter history as free human beings, and, though we removed one seemingly insuperable obstacle, the terror regime, we could not relieve them of the struggle that alone gives meaning and, potentially, durability to freedom.  Without us, the Iraqis might have put off a new effort of self-liberation for many years.  They might never have gone the final distance as a people (or set of captured peoples), but such a description ignores the extent to which they were held back and hemmed in, trapped by history at the cradle of civilization, at the crossroads of the world, on an ocean of oil, and at the same time pushed forward by larger forces – the same ones that gave Saddam his weapons and his dreams, the same ones that enslaved the Iraqis together in a “republic of fear,” the same ones that made the world so interested.

“Operation Iraqi Freedom” could therefore only have ever meant a willed confrontation with catastrophe.  We can take this knowledge with us on the next “operation,” and there will very likely be a next one, different because of our additional knowledge and our new cautions, but sooner or later on the same terms.

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13 comments on “The Iraq Syndrome

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  1. “Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny,” said President Obama, among many other things. Politicians need lots of loopholes and possible exits. But the speech seemed different from what Obama had been saying earlier. He was simultaneously saying that we had left Iraq, as promised, and that we were still involved in creating a new destiny.
    What is a new destiny? It seems to mean escaping from the world where Muslims blow each other up regularly, as believers typically do, to a world where an analog of the First Amendment will take root, violating the exclusivity built into dogma. Obama seems to want neo-con goals with no loss of American–or Iraqi–lives. Can such a thing happen? Maybe Obama can engineer a miracle.
    In the meantime, my poem still seems to be true.

  2. The fate of Iraq was tied back to events in 1991, when the Gulf War ended without resolution, 1979, when Saddam came to power, or 1963,
    the results of the coup against Quassem. Such details were inconvenient to Greenwald, just like his murderous Nazi preacher

  3. Here’s the Best case scenario for the Iraq War by Victor Davis Hanson,a smart guy,for NRO,a friendly forum for Victor.

    “So was Iraq worth the cost?— The truth about Iraq is that, for all the tragedy and the loss, the U.S. military performed a miracle.”
    (1)After nearly seven years, a constitutional government endures in that country.
    (2) all 23 of the writs for war passed by the Congress in 2002–were met and satisfied by the U.S. military.”
    (3) Libya gave up its WMD program;
    (4)Dr. Khan’s nuclear franchise was shut down;
    (5)Syria left Lebanon;
    (6)American troops in Saudi Arabia, put there as protection against Saddam, were withdrawn.
    (7) the destruction of al-Qaeda in Iraq helped to discredit the entire idea of radical Sunni Islamic terrorists
    (8)the loss of thousands of foreign radical Islamists in Iraq had a positive effect on U.S. security
    (9) Kurdistan was, prior to 2003, faced with the continual threat of genocidal attacks by Saddam Hussein; today it is a booming economy. All that would have been impossible without U.S. intervention.

    Good list,Right? If Hanson can’t justify it,who can?

  4. @ Rex Caruthers:
    Well, as I’ve already said, at length, I think the war was inevitable.

    Hanson’s list is unimpressive and unimaginative, and would be very unlikely to persuade someone more sensitive than he is to the costs.
    If you read the “23 writs of war” you can see how phony to the point of comical some of his reasoning is. There was no “meeting” and “satisfying” those whereas’s. That’s eyewash. Most or all of the other benefits could theoretically have been achieved by other means or don’t come close to an overall justification.

    A comparative advantage analysis based on the war itself is bound to fail. The pre-war situation was untenable, reflecting not so much a failure as a very long-term inadequacy and imbalance in our relations with the Arab world, and more generally the cost of being, and of having been, the world’s police department. Viewed in context, the war was fought to avoid the implications of not-war – not being the world’s police department, leader, manager, guarantor, etc. – and was mishandled in numerous ways mainly reflecting our overconfidence, overenthusiasm, naivete, and ignorance. The main “benefit” of the war, apart from the passive benefit of our maintaining our world-management role, was getting us over our overconfidence, over-enthusiasm, naivete, and ignorance.

  5. CK/#5

    My point exactly in giving Victor a chance to make his case,his case was very anemic. I heard Tony Blair bleeting on NPR today about how the Iraqis wanted our way of life,and that’s fine,but what does that have to do with us?/or that’s their problem/Blair never went there.
    The worst way to nation build,(1)destroy a nation,(2)send a bunch of ignoramuses* to the destroyed nation,(3)Have them rebuild it.
    *Ignorant about the nation they are rebuilding.

  6. @ Rex Caruthers:
    I thought that’s what you were getting at. I’ve come to believe that VDH is very overrated – or that it’s been bad for him to be associated with NR all of this time.

    Here’s the problem that your very succinct summation illustrates: Regarding the Iraqis’ aspirations, you ask, “What does that have to do with us?” By “our” very existence, we both stimulate the Iraqis’ aspirations and by our trade and tacit support for the tyranny as well as by our half-measures against it “we” were blocking those same aspirations. I put “we” in quotation marks because I’m not referring to any particular American policy, or even less to some conspiracy theory about the CIA “creating” Saddam. Neither we nor the Iraqis have or had the real world option of strictly minding our own business. That’s now how our real world works.

  7. CK/ Neither we nor the Iraqis have or had the real world option of strictly minding our own business. That’s now how our real world works.

    That’s true about various common interests maybe even including regional war,but,the Iranians wants democracy just as badly as the Iraqis did,and still,that’s their problem,they proved they could change their own regime in the past,they did that without our help.

  8. @ Rex Caruthers:
    Right – and there are numerous very concrete differences – historical, demographic, geographical, etc. – that explain why our relationship to Iran and the Iranians can never be the same as our relationship to Iraq and the Iraqis. I’m not making Tony Blair’s argument. He has his own reasons for organizing the facts as he does. Aspirations amongst the populace are only one factor among many determining the nature of our involvement. Blair was and remains primarily concerned with justifying the war morally/politically against the “human costs.” His description of W was very much on point for the argument I was trying to make or allude to at the end of the post, and I may return to it soon: Blair describes W’s simple determination to spread democracy and freedom. W seemed to think a little bit of war could be helpful, but his bourgeois rationalism – shared by Blair and by the vast majority of observers, including the self-styled anti-bourgeois Marxists and other radicals – prevents him from understanding what spreading democracy and freedom really means and requires, for the newly freed democrats most of all.

  9. Americans will often choose the route of self sacrifice in the percieved defense of America;not quite so eager in the defense of/helping hand for another nation. That why I’m against an all professional army in the case of nation building ambitions of the CIC. In the case of an actual attack on the US,no need for a Draft usually,everyone wants to help if its for real. Obviously,if Bush,on 9/12 had wanted a declaration of War/A Draft,he could have had both,he had his reasons not to go that route,although,I’ve never read a convincing explanation on that decision.
    So why did we need a WW2 draft? In my opinion,neither Germany nor Japan were “Deeply” feared to conquer us by force. I would have fought it as a one front war against Japan,and then turned to Germany later. I’m sure there were/are many good arguments against that Strategy,but an obvious plus would have been that full concentration on the one front first,could have allowed us to clean up that mess much faster than we did,and our coming in the war late(WW1 Style) would have put terrible leverage on the GermanGeneral staff.

  10. The same could have been said about the Phillipines circa 1910, it was a nasty little quagmire in it’s own right. How would that have worked by the way, a one front war, if the Germans had moved past El Alemain
    to Cairo, and Jerusalem, well that would have solved one problem

  11. @ Rex Caruthers:
    In short, we couldn’t allow Germany (or any other power) to gain hegemony over Trans-Eurasia (just a word I made up for Eurasia plus the Middle East and Mediterranean Africa). That’s a fundamental feature of U.S. global strategy. If Russia and GB had succumbed, we never would have been able to intervene in Europe. We wouldn’t even have tried. We never could have gotten our troop ships across the Atlantic Ocean, and wouldn’t even have given it much thought, because it would have been obviously impossible – suicidal, impractical, pointless. We would have been left to divide up the world with Germany on Germany’s terms – while perhaps waiting hopefully for the Reich to crumble as a result of its over-extension, or maybe for Japan and Germany to come to blows. Might have taken a while.

    North America might never have been occupied by force, and in that sense, until the nuclear age, it was virtually impossible for us to fight a war for sheer physical survival and sovereignty, but a German total victory would have been greatly harmful to us all the same. We’d have been looking at hanging around, as a peripheral power, subject to swift punishment if we got too uppity. And we probably wouldn’t have been free to fight Japan for very long either.

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